Let My People Go! A Jewish & African American Celebration of Freedom
Let My People Go!
A Jewish & African American Celebration of Freedom
Appleseed Recordings APR CD 1084, 2004
This album is very much a throwback, and a continuation, of the best of the spirit of the 1960s. Opening with the chanting of "B'chol dor va'dor" (in every generation we must retell the story) and seguing immediately into a glorious "I'm on my Way" the delivers wonderful music with a point. This is not a memorial to the Sixties as much as a kick start to a renewed commitment to social justice. We remember the Sixties as a time when, in part, African-Americans and Jews found common cause in shared traditions and in a passion for family values and a moral, caring society. This album is a reminder that "if we can walk we can dance". And if we can renew our commitment and activism in this terrible time, the beginning of the 21st century, we will certainly accompanying that commitment with music and celebration.
To some people in my family, this album is an embarrassing example of Sixties nostalgia. Surely, black gospel isn't as meaningful as hip hop today. Surely in our synagogues we are more familiar with Debbie Friedman's melodies than even nusakh and traditional chants. But in truth, these are the tunes and chants that speak to us of social justice. Debbie Friedman's prayers and songs are powerful, but they don't speak to the cause of social justice with the power that these, as sung here, do.
The impression of Sixties nostalgia the wafts to the casual listener and mars this album is not helped by the spoken pieces by Art Waskow and Pete Seeger, and even Sonny Ochs, Phil's sister. Those pieces are powerful, but they ultimately get in the way of the music. But that may be part of the album's strength, as well. This album has a power that asks for careful and frequent listening: "Avodim Hayinu" (we were slaves, from the Passover Hagaddah) into "In the Missippi River" making the connection between one exodus, and another slavery. Art Waskow's explanation of how he came to discover Judaism through his activism and through events initiated by his tangential meeting of Fannie Lou Famer and the Mississippi Freedom Party in 1964; Pete's history of "We Shall Overcome," explaining how the song evolved, just as political power doesn't spring suddenly, like a product one purchases at Walmart, but rather evolves over time, as used by people. Sonny Ochs memoralizing of her brother, one of the poets of that era I most often miss, introducing "What's that I hear" is a great example of personalizing and making a tangible connection to the traditions these songs represent, back when, for a short time, popular song often represented something other than the commodification of love and trivia.
To many people, the Sixties were a time of drug excess, of hippies, and of riots and assassinations. We have been through such times periodically, whether the Gay Nineties or Roaring Twenties, or the Sixties. But the 50s and 60s were also a time in which many struggles were, for a time, realized. From Brown vs. the Board of Education to Roe vs. Wade; from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to environmental legislation, and the reopening of our doors to immigrants from so many lands incredible good came from that period.
Today, in a time when our President can mire us in a new foreign war as though of high ideals, but more of high commercial benefit to his friends, and great death to Iraqis and Americans ... at a time when the same President is able to propose a Social Security "Reform" whose goal seems to be eviscerating the program in favor of tax cuts to the wealthy (because young people don't expect Social Security to be there for them anyway), this music is just as important as it was back when. More important, perhaps, because back then, much of the music wasn't associated with anything; even our seders were focused on Biblical times, as though there were no connection to the world as it had become—today, however, it is a reminder of the victories we once achieved, and of the caring and commitment and sacrifice that made those victories possible.
Here's the thing about social change, and here's the reason we tie it so strongly to the Passover Seder and to the commandment to "tell it in every generation". Human nature doesn't change. We like to believe that we have won victories that are final, but in truth, in any era battles were won for that generation only. In good times, such as the Sixties, or the Exodus from Egypt, an example is set, and associations are made that will serve to give us strength in every generation as we retell those stories and find ourselves re-inspired to enter into the struggles of new generations, including this one and this time.
And here's the thing about this CD. It is an incredibly powerful, wonderful anti-nostalgia document. It is a retelling of the freedom story in terms that can be heard today, and that inspires today. Some of this music dates back to the Sixties or before. At a first listen, that is what we hear. But social activism never went away. Some of what we hear on this CD includes rap (as on the penultimate medley) and a beautiful setting of a Mahmoud Darwish poem by Linda Hirschhorn. Drawing from our heritage of political inspiration, this album presents story, freedom song, gospel, songs of hallel (Mah Lecha Ha-yam), nigun (an awesome version of "Ilu Finu"—were our mouths oceans of song) and fuses them into something special. In particular, towards the end of the CD, the melding of "We shall overcome" with "Ani Ma'amin", the former a song popularized by the Civil Rights organizers and the latter an ancient prayer dating back to Maimonides or earlier, sung by Jews in the Concentration Camps in defiance of genocide, brings tears to my eyes. I am not someone who believes that the Messiah is likely to come anytime soon, but I am a believer in the power of faith to give us the strength to make change that matters. The CD ends with words of truth. "I Won't Turn Back." If I ever wavered, this album has fully restored not only my belief, but has restored my memory of the joy that comes of working with people of faith to make a better world: tikkun olam.
See the sidebar for information on booking Kim and Reggie Harris and Rabbi Jonathan Kligler in a "Let My People Go!" live presentation.
Reviewed by Ari Davidow, 6 Feb 2005
Personnel this recording include:
Chris Andersen, Greg Artzner, LeVonn Brown, Gary Burke, Eric Byrd, Peter Davis, Graham and Barbara Dean, Joe Hammer, Kim and Reggie Harris, Ellen Jahoda, Matt and Marshall Jones, Jonathan and Timna Kligler, Ade Knowles, Tony Levin, Karen Levine, Marguerite Lodico, Brian Melick, Troy Messenger, Mark Murphy, Juanita Nelson, Penny Nichols, Sonny Ochs, Chris Perry-Coons, John Platania, Gretchen Reed, David Sancious, Cindy Schultz, Pete Seeger, Bill and Livia Vanaver, Arthur Waskow, Woodstock Jewish Congregation
- B'Chol Dor Va'Dor (in every generation)/I'm on my way (from the Passover Haggadah/trad. African American Spiritual; medley arr. and adpt. Kim and Reggie Harris) 4:11
- Ha Lachma Anya—this is the bread of affliction (from the Passover Haggadah; music trad.; arr. Bill Vanaver, Reggie Harris) 2:13
- Avodim Hayinu—Slaves were we (Yiddish Lyrics by IJ Schwartz; music: Michel Gelbart) 1:31
- In the Mississippi River (Marshall Jones) 4:02
- Remembering Phil Ochs (Sonny Ochs) 1:06
- What's that I hear (Phil Ochs) 5:02
- The New Colossus/Give me your Tired, Your Poor/Motherless Child (Emma Lazarus/Irving Berlin/trad. African American; medley arr. Raggie Harris) 4:05
- Democratic National Convention 1964 (Rabbi Arthur Waskow) 7:06
- Mah lecha ha'yam—sea, why do you flee (psalm 114; music: trad.; arr. Jonathan Kliger, Kim and Reggie Harris) 3:11
- Man come into Egypt (Fred Hellerman) 3:24
- Ilu finu—were our mouths oceans of song (from the Passover Haggaddah; new arr. Miriam Margles) 4:46
- Let my people go: story of an activist's life (Juanita Nelson) 6:10
- Freedom Road (Reggie and Kim Harris) 4:24
- I have a million nightingales (words: Mahmoud Darwish; music: Linda Hirschhorn) 5:06
- Venomar Lefanav—let us sing a new song (from the Passover Haggadah; music: trad.; arr. Reggie Harris, Bill Vanaver) 2:18
- We shall overcome: evolution of a song (Pete Seeger) 3:13
- Ani Ma'amin (I believe)/We shall overcome (trad./trad. via Zilphia Horton, Frank Hamilton, Guy Carawan, Pete Seeger; rap: LeVonn Brown; arr. Reggie and Kim Harris, Jonathan Kligler) 5:35
- I won't turn back (Matt Jones) 4:42